In many Hindu articles and blogs, the Brahmavadin Gargi Vachaknavi is mentioned proudly as a shining example of the glory of Indian women and the superior status that Vedic women had.
Gargi Vachaknavi appears in the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad in a section relating a philosophical session (Brahma sabha) in King Janaka’s court. Many scholars in the court question the renowned sage Yajnawalkya on the nature of Brahman. Gargi is one of the questioners who raise some of the more difficult questions. She does concede to the scholarship of Yajnawalkya at the end.
All the recent mentions of Gargi Vachaknavi (blogs, articles, Upanishad Ganga TV serial) seem to hold a tone of surprise and special appreciation about the fact that a unmarried girl was part of the Brahma sabha and dared to question the great sage Yajnawalkya in the august court of King Janaka in the presence of many famous scholars and philosophers.
In the context of the last couple of millennia with so very few women scholars/philosophers not just in Hinduism, but in all religions, the mention of women like Gargi, Mythreyi, Ghosa, etc come with a element of uniqueness and surprise.
However, when I read the actual translation of the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad, what struck me was that there is no “special’ mention of Gargi’s “womanhood”. She is just treated as one of the other scholars. There is neither a tone of surprise nor of appreciation that there is a woman in the mix.
This leads me to believe that, though Gargi rose to the “cream” of the women due to her presence in a large court, it was not so uncommon for women to learn and discuss Brahma gnana and philosophical topics. If she were so unique, the Brhdaranyaka would have indicated it.
Many of the sutras talk about women being initiated (upanayanam) –
Harita says that women are of two types: those who speak about Brahman and those who soon become wives. Of them, the first type has initiation, establishment of fire, the vedic studies and observance of begging alms. The second is just initiated and soon married. Yama also mentions tying of munja grass girdle (upanayana) for women who were taught the Vedas and who had to recite the Savitri (the sacred Gayatri mantra). Katyayana, Yajnikadeva and Satyasadha specifically mention chanting and performing fire ablutions for unmarried girls.
So, it is quite possible that many women were educated in the knowledge of Brahman and the various religious texts, and could hold forth equal to men in these topics. Gargi and others, while the “cream” appearing in the Upanishads, may not have been so unique as we suppose them to be.
More than quoting a handful of special women, it is the ubiquity of women scholars that should cited more often. An ubiquity that is still missing in the modern world, where we have equality in many areas, but not in the most important pursuit – the spiritual realm!